Katherine E. Young



BUTTERFLIES

The Methodist Church sends cassettes each week;
in Granddaddy’s sickroom we play them back.
Aunt settles in her chair snapping string beans
blesses the spell that’s wrought by psalm and sermon
old-time hymns wrung from a brass-lipped choir 
magic to still the fluttering limbs, the palsied
mouth that’s now habitually convulsed
in agonies of incomprehension . . . .
Out in the kitchen, Grandma still revisits
her old wrongs:  what Cousin Gert said once
that time in ‘thirty-four and how she settled
Gert’s hash; and then her story shifts to tell
about the time the minister dropped by
the kitchen sink piled high with dirty dishes 
and my!  What must the minister have thought
about her sorry housekeeping?  Outside
a collection of wagon wheels, sprung now
from their axles, fixed in paint, pinned up
like dead butterflies to the empty fenceposts.

 
GRANDMA'S HOUSE

My mother paid to put in plumbing, delayed
the date in hopes her bridegroom’s kin would never
know there'd been an outhouse.  But the house
itself remains a running sore, its hurts
scabbing, cracking, tearing anew:  the whining
of those precious pipes, the mineral rings
that scale the sinks now of a piece with sloped
ceilings and permanently bowing floors.
Grandma sits in her corner, still as an icon
while the walls around her buckle, bulge. 
Upstairs the litter of ghosts ferments the air: 
tarnished shaving brushes, moldy pillows,
plastic vines.  Old quilts lie piled, not Wedding
Bands or Lovers' Knots, but patchwork sewn
by women with no leisure time for fancy
needlework.  One day I found a treasure
there:  tiny silver ring, its surface
incised with what might once have been flowers.
"They told me my Great-Granny had small hands"
my mother said.  "She died from stepping on
a rusty needle—tetanus, of course." 
We kept on turning over quilts, as if
more secrets might be hidden there.  As if
we'd find the reason for pain and poverty—
some purpose remarkable, ennobling, rare. 
Not mere stubbornness, failing to quit
when beaten, not plain cussedness.  Not just
the pulse of protoplasm, multiplication
of atoms, molecules, cells, all straining to
produce our unremarkable selves.  The quilts
breathed out their scent of mildew, of dead moths. 
Downstairs I heard the plumbing groan, heard
the shouts of men driving cows to be milked. 
Beneath my feet the floorboard creaked as I
picked up the ring and slipped it on my finger.


GRANDMA AT NINETY

The difference between silver
and gray:  alchemy, gradation
of metal, fur, ash, of wisdom.
Gray is the old linoleum
the support shoes, the curls frizzled
in her hair by an indifferent
beautician each third Thursday of
the month . . . .  Silver was the band
they placed upon her head, the dials
twirling in nerveless hands, silver
the color of her voice when
the lightning shot through.


MENTAL HOSPITAL

Comes a sudden sigh—
blown by wind, perhaps—
moan of tassled stalks
groping towards the sky.

Pumpkins gleam nearby.
Moonlight slants across
empty buildings now
shuttering their eyes.

White stones mark the path.
(Broken down, they fell.)
Dead leaves dance these nights,
curling on themselves.

 
V-E DAY

Staunton, VA, 1945

A child of nine in Sunday clothes sits up
in the high seat while her father pilots
the farm truck towards town.  Daddy, too, wears
dress-up clothes; the child sees small dots of sweat
banding where his new hat meets his forehead. 
Along the road, the country people have
hung out flags, children shout, dogs bark, music
floats from radios, follows in their wake.
The child fingers blue ribbons Aunt Etha
knotted around her pigtails, considers
all she's heard of soldiers, Cousin Raymond
coming home, no more ration cards, Pauline
and Frances waltzing across the kitchen
when the happy news came.  May sun beats down
on the fields, on chicory and milkweed
in the ditches, on cattle, on the flocks
of sparrows twittering in the yards as
they near the town.  In the streets strangers wave,
rockets pop, a band plays at the high school.
As Daddy slows by the hospital gate,
a boy trailing red, white, and blue streamers
runs up beside the truck, he's shouting now,
she smiles down at him, hears Daddy saying
"Pay no attention," at the same moment
as the boy's shrill "Loony bin!  Loony bin!" 
She watches the boy's face contort just like
her mother's when the words failed, jaw muscles
working the empty air.  Here is Mother,
expressionless, smooth, waiting on the porch
with her suitcase to brave the journey home.



Katherine E. Young's poetry is forthcoming in Archipelago, Poet Lore, and Stone Table Review.  Her work has appeared most recently in The Innisfree Poetry Journal, The Iowa Review (where she is a three-time finalist for the Iowa Award), Southern Poetry Review, and Shenandoah.  She is a three-time semifinalist for the "Discovery/The Nation" reading in New York and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Locally, she co-hosts the Cafe Muse reading series in Friendship Heights, MD, and is a visiting poet in the Arlington County, VA, schools.  A chapbook, Gentling the Bones, will be published by Finishing Line Press in 2007.










                                    

 

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